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TELL-TALE TAIL

"If redfish could jump, I'd never fish for snook again."

Capt. Greg DeVault's thought-provoking statement was one of the more interesting I've heard of late. As an inshore guide, his clients often insist on linesider pursuits, but in DeVault's book, even the snook's vicious strikes and aerial attitude don't measure up to the charms of the redfish.

Explaining his fixation, DeVault said, "They're fairly easy to find, there's usually a bunch of them, and they usually (cooperate)."

True, but the real reason the Port Richey guide favors the bronze bombers is their shallow-water floor show known as "tailing."

With a taste for crabs, shrimp, snails and anything else that crawls or slithers along the sea floor, reds spend much of their feeding time with their noses stuck in the bottom. As they turn downward, their black-spotted, blue-tinged tails rise topside and, in low-water scenarios, break the surface. Hence the term "tailing redfish."

An awe-inspiring, if not downright paralyzing, sight for flats fanatics, tailing reds represent the ultimate inshore challenge _ sneaking up on feeding fish in whisper-thin water.

Ideal tailing areas are shallow grass flats that go nearly bone-dry at low tide. Here, the little guys with lots of legs emerge to feed on the barren expanse. On the incoming tide, the reds rush in to catch them out of their holes. Barrier islands like Caladesi, Three Rooker Bar and Anclote Key are consistent producers.

Understanding the redfish's feeding schedule, DeVault finds the last hour of the outgoing tide and the first hour of the incoming best. As the tide falls, the fish feed heavily until the receding water no longer covers them. During the low period, the reds snooze in deeper cuts and potholes until the incoming tide rings the dinner bell.

Important to remember is tailing reds are a nervous lot. Fully aware of their vulnerability, any disturbance will send them fleeing. Hence, push-poling or wading is the way to go. Try to keep the sun at your quarter so it doesn't blind you head-on or cast your shadow over the skittish reds. Incoming tides in the early morning or late afternoon are optimal, as fish-spooking shadows offend less in the low light.

DeVault advises picking a target and judging its direction by the angle of its tail. Maintain visual contact, but if the fish submerges, freeze until the tail pops back up. For minimal disturbance and a soft presentation, try a sidearm cast.

Although spoons are a great redfish lure for deeper water, DeVault avoids them for tailers because the heavy splash is a game-blower. Soft plastic jerk baits and small jigs are better, but a live shrimp is hard to beat.

"If they're rooting around and there's a live shrimp anywhere around, they'll find it," DeVault said.

Tailer strikes are usually solid but casual as the fish grabs the bait and returns to search. Set the hook, though, and it's tug-of-war time.

"They're so strong and they never quit," DeVault said. "They're just constantly pulling."

A good thing, he added, is that reds are very hardy and able to survive long battles. A few moments of boatside revival recharges their batteries and the fish is ready to go.

Now, you can't tell DeVault I said this, but I actually heard him speak ill of a redfish. He and Mike Paone were trying to catch a photo snook for me under the docks at the Cotee River's mouth. Five minutes into the deal, DeVault's pilchard disappeared in a briny swirl and his rod doubled.

A 60-second struggle took a downward spin, though, when the assumed snook rolled topside and bore his dark-spotted tail. Wouldn't have been so bad if the yard-long red hadn't pulled the old wrap-and-snap on a piling. It was a tense moment with a few colorful metaphors.

DeVault later withdrew his unfavorable comments. He really likes reds, you know.

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